- Historic Sites
The strange saga of a town that bragged, burned, and bullied itself into existence—and then became one of the most civilized places on earth
April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
“Sure,” you say, and they’ll lead you to sepulchral joints with special entrées from the darkest recesses of American gastronomy—deep-fried slabs of geoduck clam necks or baleful bowls of salmon-head soup —and house drinks as fierce as turpentine.
A newcomer’s wonder at the beauty of Seattle is followed by a panicky recognition of its precariousness.
It’s hard to tell exactly when Seattle was tamed. Some say it was the general strike that did it; others the Great Depression, which struck the city with particular fury, abandoning ships to rust in Lake Union and occupying the area west of the site of the Kingdome with a vast Hooverville of shacks and tents. Some blame Dave Beck, whose musclebound intrigues created a middle class of almost tedious conventionality.
But as Seattle’s arteries clog, and its real estate values go through the congested roof, today’s old-timers are more apt to long for the lean, communal days of the last great bust in the early 1970s, when massive layoffs in the aeronautics industry created such an exodus from Seattle that a wag posted a billboard by the highway reading, “Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?”
In 1914 a young iron and lumber heir made an unsatisfactory flight across Lake Washington and decided with a friend to build his own airplanes. After decades of ups and downs, and in one of the most unlikely aeronautic climates south of the Yukon, William E. Boeing’s enterprise grew into the dominant economic entity in the region.
In fact, no other city of its size in the country is as dependent on a single company as Seattle. During World War II, military contracts raised Boeing’s work force to fifty thousand and earned the company $600 million dollars, about eight times the value of all of Seattle’s manufacturing goods in the last prewar year. After the war Boeing gambled on passenger-plane travel, in 1960 was employing fiftyeight thousand workers in the Seattle area, and by 1992 had a payroll of about $4 billion, half of every dollar paid in manufacturing.
During the 1980s Boeing accounted for approximately 40 percent of Seattle’s boom, but for every boom there has been a bust, and although Microsoft in nearby Redmond has joined with lumber and shipping to diversify King County’s economy, it is still precariously one-dimensional. Today Seattleites track Boeing’s stock as faithfully as they check the weather, and they ride an economic roller coaster of airplane orders and cancellations, hirings and layoffs.
The ferry east from my home on Bainbridge Island hands downtown Seattle to you on a silver platter. The skyline is an impressive crystal cluster of office towers crowding down to the pastel piers of the old waterfront, which the freighters have long since abandoned for the container cranes half a mile to the south.
A pale gray building called the Smith Tower is now almost negligible south of the skyline’s apogee. But it is a measure of Seattle’s accelerated ambition that upon the Smith Tower’s completion in 1914 it was the tallest building outside New York City. I suspect that Seattle’s skyline would seem even more exalted if it weren’t dwarfed not only by the flanking Cascades but by Mount Rainier, which appears occasionally through the clouds and mists like an implausible projection on a vast gray scrim. There is something inherently democratic about Seattle. Stroll along the old waterfront, bump through the crowds at Pike Place Market, sit for lunch atop the Space Needle, or duck through the canyons of the business district, and you will find that unlike the intimate landscapes of New England—the miniature vistas around which anyone, with enough money, can build a fence—Seattle’s setting is unencompassable. Even the homeless man who glimpses Rainier and Baker or scans the embarrassment of riches of the sound, the lakes, the mountains, can lay equal claim with the Angeleno yachting through the San J’fcans or the lawyer setting his precarious mansion on the slopes of the emerald shore.
The culture is not exactly downbeat; Seattleites are by and large a wholesome lot who talk a good deal about family values, the work ethic, and community. But they are the nemesis of the dressed-for-success movement. “Sensible women in socks” is how one visitor summed up the local fashion scene, and we accord the same scorn to men who wear suits to work as we once reserved for boys who carried briefcases to high school.
A lot of people move here simply to be here, and one result is perhaps the most literate and overqualified work force in the country. In Seattle I have been waited upon by a postdoctoral metallurgist at a hardware store, a published historian at a newsstand, an ex-surgeon at a tackle shop.